It is a cliché that today we live in a culture obsessed by ‘celebrity’, with the lumpen proletariat forever fawning over the minutiae of talentless non-entities who are famous merely for being famous. The popularity and power wielded by Hello! magazine, the profusion of famous nobodies spawned from and spewed out by Channel Four’s Big Brother and other reality television programmes, are often cited as proof of this cultural phenomenon. Perhaps the most visible evidence of our celebrity culture can be witnessed at local newsagents, which now sell a cornucopia of cheap magazine titles devoted entirely to the inexplicably famous.
It is also received wisdom that our cult of celebrity is something new, a diseased manifestation of postmodernity, a society in which references have been lost, dissolved or obliterated, where the media no longer represents reality but only itself. To many, it is a given that in the 21st century we inhabit a metaphorical hall of mirrors.
A metaphorical hall of mirrors?
Whilst it is undeniable there is a cult of celebrity today, it is naive to assume it has been thrust upon us (or we have thrust it upon ourselves) in the last ten or fifteen years. ’[T]he celebrity is the creature of gossip, of magazines, newspapers and the ephemeral images of the movie and television screen. Celebrities are differentiated mainly by trivia of of personality,’ wrote Daniel Boorstin in The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-events in America, ‘Anyone can become a celebrity if only he can get into the news and stay there’. Boorstin wrote these words in 1961. Perhaps we have only become aware of the cult of celebrity today by the sheer imposing magnitude it has assumed. It’s only a matter of scale: it may have been in gestation for centuries and certainly has been a reality for decades.
In The Fame Formula Mark Borkowski dates the birth of celebrity in general, and the public relations industry in particular, back to 1825. This was the year Phineas T Barnum purchased a slave for $1000 on the understanding that she had been a nursemaid of George Washington. This, he reckoned, made her 163 years old. ‘Barnum loved an audience and he needed them to spread his stories around the world,’ writes Borkowski (p22), and Barnum proceeded to charge punters 25 cents a time to listen to the slave Joice Heth recall stories, and hear the hymns she had sung when she was nursemaid to the future president.
When interest in the fictitious nursemaid began to abate, letters in newspapers began to emerge accusing Heth of being an impostor and Barnum a fraud. These were followed by counter-accusations from Barnum. But it was Barnum, employing pseudonyms, who had penned the accusing letters in the first place, all in the name of drumming up publicity for his exhibit in the first place. Barnum was also responsible for bringing to America the original ‘Siamese Twins’, Chang and End, in 1829, for parading the original ‘bearded lady’ Madame Clofullia, the ‘dog-faced boy’ Jo-Jo, and for bringing to America the 11ft tall elephant, Jumbo.
The Fame Formula is a chronology of the prominent, devious, and often criminal, mastermind PR men who have helped to create the celebrity industry, such as Maynard Nottage and Harry Reichenbach - the man whose stunt to gain publicity for the movie Tarzan of the Apes (1918) was to dress an orangutan from the film in tuxedo and top hat and take it to a Hollywood party. Another publicist, Jim Moran, sold a fridge to an Eskimo, led a bull through a china shop and spent 82 hours looking for a needle in a 12-foot haystack.
Anecdotes aside, Borkowski charts the extent to which these jesters and rogues not only generated celebrities, but subsequently seized control of them. The likes of Clark Gable and Joan Crawford were built up by their PR men, wooed by them, and then controlled by them. The Fame Formula’s ostensible narrative is that the media are now slaves to the fixers, fakers and star makers, and therein lies the source of today’s unhappy simulacrum. ‘One of the by-products of this is a brand of celebrity journalism that’s afraid to say anything the star and the publicist doesn’t want said, breeding a mealy-mouthed culture where the public only learns about the frothy surface,’ he concludes (p366).
Jean Harlow and Clark Gable
But is this so? Borkowski seems to contradict himself earlier on. ‘The great skill of the publicist in [the 1930s] was making journalists think they had the measure of power they craved when in fact they were simply desperate for access to be granted,’ he writes. ‘The old days of presenting a story that journalists would flock to report were over. In the new millennium, this relationship has come full circle, and the media are much more aware of the nature of their relationship with the celebrities they report on and the publicists who manage them’ (pp137-138).
Whichever interpretation he believes, Borowski underestimates the power of the media in their relationship with PR men. It’s important to remember that those who represent celebrities are completely reliant on the media. The likes of Max Clifford may dictate which newspaper his client may talk to, or what questions Richard and Judy may not ask, but without the press or television he would be out of a job. And if the likes of Jade Goody or Victoria Beckham agrees only to have an exclusive interview with the Sun or Nuts it is usually guaranteed that the Mirror or Zoo will concurrently write something spiteful. PR men are to the media what internet bloggers are to the mainstream press: parasites who will never supplant what feeds them.
Still, The Fame Formula is a masterful compendium of a hitherto neglected field; neglected because of its essentially ephemeral nature. Fame and fashion are by definition concepts concerned with transience, novelty and amnesia. Borkowski concludes that fame or notoriety lasts approximately 15 months before it needs to be refreshed by a new stunt or image change.
This probably explains why chameleons such as David Bowie or Madonna have remained in the public eye. David Beckham continues to be a source of intrigue to people not remotely interested in football on account of his good looks, new tattoos, children with silly names; Pete Doherty’s music is unremarkable, but his litany of drug offences and failed court appearances have assumed a narrative of their own; the case with Amy Winehouse is similar in that she is now less famous for her songs, but appeals to the template of the ‘troubled rock star’, forever falling out of nightclubs. And when Doherty and Winehouse die, which the tabloids assume will be sooner rather than later, they will be famous for being dead. Like Sid Vicious, who couldn’t play a note, their musical talent will be largely forgotten. The reason why popular culture idolises rock stars who die young is because popular culture fetishises youth and fame for the same reasons: they both represent energy and evanescence and negate history, age and guile.
Chang and End: challenging the autonomous self?
This work is full of rich anecdotes, and unsurprisingly learned, given that Mark Borkowski is a PR man himself, having represented the likes of Michael Jackson, Diego Maradona, Mikhail Gorbachev, Eddie Izzard and the Bolshoi Ballet. It should be regarded as the canonical chronology of the history of the fame industry. But it is not the authoritative assessment of the subject matter, for it only tells us how, and not why. The story is devoid of historical and cultural context. This was not Borkowski’s principal remit, but it would be good to know: what was the lurid appeal for leering at bearded ladies, dog-faced boys and ‘Siamese Twins’ in the 19th century?
Postmodernists might explain it was a manifestation of the Enlightenment and Modernity’s fear of ‘the Other’ as it sought to rationalise a society in which the boundaries between male and female, human and non-human, were becoming clearly delineated. Bearded ladies and dog-faced boys shocked and intrigued because they offended this dichotomy, as the notion of ‘Siamese Twins’ challenges the notion of the autonomous ‘self’ (and may have appealed to Orientalist fears, too). In addition, it would be interesting to look at the cult of celebrity from a gender perspective. Celebrity is indisputably a predominately female pursuit, as the magazine racks at supermarkets (which are clearly divided into male and female interests) will demonstrate. Has gossiping about Paris Hilton’s new frock or Calista Flockhart’s weight-loss become a substitute for exchanging ‘wicked whispers’ over the garden fence about their neighbours?
The fame game may have been going on for years, but it doesn’t explain just why children, when asked a generation ago what they wanted to be when they grow up, answered ‘a fireman’ or ‘a policeman’, now invariably respond ‘famous’. The psychologist Oliver James believes we live in a fractured ‘low serotonin’ society, where we compensate by seeking attention and affection from strangers. This may explain why so many people want to be on television or in Heat magazine, and are willing to be exploited by PR men in the process.
The reason we are unhappy, those on the left argue, is that capitalism has destroyed and displaced working class communities. Conservatives, on the other hand, maintain that the breakdown of the family and moral relativism is the reason for our dysfunctional society. Both camps appear to agree that family and community bonds have dissolved, and without the love and support of people who know us, our Facebook generation seeks the affection and approval of people who don’t.